Dastangoi magic revives lost medieval tales

Fri Sep 30, 2011 3:38am EDT
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By Arnika Thakur

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - There are no props, no music and no elaborate costumes -- and if these performers have their way, no applause either.

Dressed in white from head to foot, the two men sit on thick white pillows. Candles flicker nearby as they conjure up a world of sorcerers and djinns, tricksters and kings, using only their voices and a few simple gestures.

It's the lost art of Dastangoi, storytelling based on medieval Urdu tales, brought back to life by two men determined to pass this ancient art form on to future generations -- and not doing badly, if the spellbound response of audiences from New Delhi to New York is a guide.

That's quite an achievement for Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, considering that they had only the bare bones of the extinct Mughal art form to work with: a treasure trove of volumes of forgotten stories from the late 19th century.

"All we have is those 46 volumes of printed stories," said Farooqui. "We don't know how they performed, what they did and how they did it."

There is also a rare 1920 audio clip of a performance by Mir Bakar Ali, the last great storyteller -- or "dastango" -- in this tradition.

At its peak from the late 16th to 19th centuries, Dastangoi performers entertained audiences with tales of war, magic and adventures that revolved around the adventures of Amir Hamza, titled "Dastan e Amir Hamza," a man said to be an uncle of Prophet Mohammad.

Unlike Scheherazade of "Arabian Nights," whose stories lasted a thousand and one nights, those of Amir Hamza could be never-ending.   Continued...